Randy Olson

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Randy Olson at the University of Missouri in March 2014

Randy Olson (born October 3, 1955) is a scientist-turned-filmmaker who earned his Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University (1984) and became a tenured professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire (1992) before changing careers by moving to Hollywood and entering film school at the University of Southern California. He has written and directed a number of short films and feature documentaries which have premiered at film festivals such as Tribeca Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival. Most of his films draw on his science background, involve humor, and address major science issues such as the decline of the world's oceans, the controversy around the teaching of evolution versus intelligent design, and the attacks on global warming science. He is also the author of three books aimed at helping the science communicate more effectively with the general public. His company, Prairie Starfish Productions, is based at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, California. He is currently the Director of the Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project.[1]

Early life[edit]

Olson was born in Heidelberg, Germany, the son of Colonel John Eric Olson, West Point graduate (class of 1939).[2][3] He moved with his family to Hawaii in 1960 (age 4) where they lived until 1964 as his father was stationed at Schofield Barracks and served as a military advisor in the growing Vietnam War. Olson credits his time near the ocean in these years with his eventual career as a marine biologist. They subsequently moved to Virginia, then Kansas City, Kansas where he attended high school and began college at the University of Kansas.[4]

Science career[edit]

After dropping out of the University of Kansas for a semester and ending up working on an oceanographic project in Puerto Rico, Olson returned to college, and transferred to University of Washington. There he got involved in marine biological research along the outer coast of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, spent a semester at Friday Harbor Marine Laboratory, graduated with a B.A. in Zoology, and was accepted to Harvard University's Ph.D. program in biology. His dissertation research took him to Australia in the early 1980s studying coral reef ecology on the Great Barrier Reef. While conducting his research he spent an entire year living on Lizard Island on the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. After completing his Ph.D. he returned to Townsville, Australia as a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, working for the Australian government studying the problem of the crown-of-thorns starfish and its destructive effect on the Great Barrier Reef. In 1985 he visited the U.S. research station in Antarctica at McMurdo Sound for his research on starfish reproduction which involved numerous scuba dives beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. In 1988 Olson was appointed a professor in the Zoology Department at the University of New Hampshire where he remained until being awarded tenure in 1994, after which he resigned to attend film school.

Film career[edit]

USC Cinema School[edit]

Olson went through the graduate film production program at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, earning his M.F.A. in 1997. For his student film he wrote and directed the twenty minute musical comedy short film, "You Ruined My Career," starring Carol Hatchett, one of Bette Midler's Harlettes. The film premiered at the 1996 Telluride Film Festival in the "Filmmakers of Tomorrow" showcase, won numerous awards, and was selected by Atomfilms.com [1] as one of "The 100 Most Important Student Films in the History of the U.S.C. Cinema School."

Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project[edit]

In 2001 Olson teamed up with senior coral reef ecologist Dr. Jeremy B.C. Jackson of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Dr. Steven Miller of University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and veteran Hollywood big budget movie producer Gale Anne Hurd to create the Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project. Initial funding came from the three founding partners: The Ocean Conservancy, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Surfrider Foundation. The term "shifting baselines" was coined by fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly in 1995. Olson broadened the definition with a widely cited OpEd in the Los Angeles Times in November, 2002. In the years since, the project has produced a series of short films, television commercials, Flash videos and contests (stand up comedy, photography, video) all written and directed by Olson. The most successful piece of media produced was the Ocean Symphony Public Service Announcement which featured a symphony of comic actors playing instruments they didn't know how to play, symbolizing the disharmony in today's unhealthy oceans.[2] This included Tom Arnold on kettle drums, Madeleine Stowe and Paul Michael Glaser on violin, Henry Winkler on harp, Sharon Lawrence on cymbals, and Jack Black as conductor. The PSA aired over 30,000 times including on CNN Headline News and in Times Square on the giant Sony video screen, scoring over $10 million in free air time.

Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus[edit]

In 2006, Olson directed the feature documentary, Flock of Dodos: the Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus. The film drew on both his evolutionary biology background and his Kansas upbringing as he visited the controversy raging over evolution in his home state. Flock of Dodos premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, in April 2006, and since then has played at film festivals all over the U.S. and abroad. The film aired on Showtime TV in the US and is available on DVD.[5] Olson also used Flock of Dodos as a contribution to the skeptical activism essay "What Do I Do Next: Leading Skeptics Discuss 105 Practical Ways to Promote Science and Advance Skepticism" published by Skepticality.[6][7][8]

Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy[edit]

In 2008 Olson wrote and directed the feature film, "Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy," which premiered on the west coast of the U.S. at the Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and on the east coast at the Woods Hole Film Festival.

The Sizzling Dodos College Tour[edit]

After over 100 college and university screenings of "Flock of Dodos" and "Sizzle", Olson combined the two movies in 2008 into the Sizzling Dodos College Tour where universities screen both movies on consecutive nights, each followed by a panel discussion of resident faculty, plus Olson gives a talk based on his "Don't Be Such a Scientist" book [3]

40 Years of Silence[edit]

In 2014 this film showing the POW experience of Olson's father, Colonel John Eric Olson, was presented and discussed at West Point USMA.[9]


Randy Olson is the author of three books:

  • Connection: Hollywood Storytelling meets Critical Thinking, co-written with Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo, 2013 (Prairie Starfish Productions). The book features the "And, But, Therefore" template that Olson has presented in a TEDMED talk and a letter in Science Magazine.[17][18][19][20]


Olson has been criticized for potentially "dumbing down" serious science issues. His response is that his critics fail to grasp the difference between "dumbing down" and concision. Two major reviews for "Sizzle" exemplified the divide. The science journal Nature gave the film a poor review titled, "Climate Comedy Falls Flat.".[22] In contrast, the Hollywood entertainment magazine Variety gave it a favorable review stating that the movie is, "An exceedingly clever vehicle for making science engaging to a general audience."[23]


  1. ^ "Randy Olson - Skepticality". Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  2. ^ "Colonel John E. Olson – Obituary". Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  3. ^ "John E. Olson Bio - FamousFix.com". m.famousfix.com. Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  4. ^ "Randy Olson – The Scientist, the filmmaker and the Professor". www.hotelresortinsider.com. Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  5. ^ "Flock of Dodos - Skepticality". Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  6. ^ "What Do I Do Next? - Skepticality". Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  7. ^ "Undercover Skeptics - Skepticality". Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  8. ^ "Where Do We Go From Here? - Skepticality". Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  9. ^ "Department of Law - Blog". www.usma.edu. Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  10. ^ Olson, Randy (2009). Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. Washington, DC: Island Press. ISBN 978-1597265638. 
  11. ^ Milinovich, Gia (10 December 2009). "How to get your message across". Nature 462 (723). doi:10.1038/462723a. Retrieved 10 Dec 2009. 
  12. ^ Kareiva, Peter (1 January 2010). "If Our Messages Are To Be Heard". Science 327 (5961): 34–35. doi:10.1126/science.1183465. Retrieved 1 Jan 2010. 
  13. ^ "Don't Be Such A Scientist! - Skepticality". Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  14. ^ "Don't Be Such a Scientist". www.dontbesuchascientist.com. Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  15. ^ "The Benshi". thebenshi.com. Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  16. ^ Science Needs Story Blog
  17. ^ Olson, Randy (2013). Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking. Hollywood, CA: Prairie Starfish Productions. ISBN 978-0615872384. 
  18. ^ Olson, Randy. "The And, But, Therefore of Storytelling". TEDMED. Retrieved 24 Jun 2013. 
  19. ^ Olson, Randy (6 December 2013). "Science Communication: Narratively Speaking" (PDF). Science 342 (6163): 1168. doi:10.1126/science.342.6163.1168-a. Retrieved 6 Dec 2013. 
  20. ^ "Make A Connection - Skepticality". Retrieved 2015-07-18. 
  21. ^ Olson, Randy (2015). Houston, We Have A Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. ISBN 9780226270708. 
  22. ^ Climate Comedy Falls Flat
  23. ^ Sizzle review

Can Storytelling be Factual and Effective? Science Needs Story Blog

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